• Director: Mario Bava
  • Writers: Mario Bava, based on the short story “Viy” by Nikolai Gogol
  • Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checci, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri, Tino Bianchi, and Antonio Pierfederici
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming on Kanopy (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Tubi App, stream with subscription on AMC Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video

There is an argument to be made that La Maschera del Demonio is the first “modern horror movie.” It came out exactly one week after Psycho, but while that movie makes its living on not actually showing us things, this one’s entire purpose is, in fact, to show us things. This is high gothic. Given the task of showing us a centuries-dead body rising from the dead, the producers don’t cut around it, the eyeballs seem to boil back into place in their sockets. In the opening scene, a witch is executed by having a bronze mask with spikes on the inside hammered into place on her face. Though the impact of any blood is less stomach-churning for being in black and white, there is hardly a shortage of it. Highly dramatic Italian horror would be a thing for a while, reaching its zenith in movies like Suspiria, but this is probably the first major example of the type.

La Maschera del Demonio literally translates as The Mask of the Demon, but it was released in the English speaking world as Black Sunday, which is not only not the same thing but also has no particular relation to anything that happens in the movie. It was intended to be dubbed into English, and unlike some other “foreign films” you’re a lot more likely (in America, anyway) to find the dubbed version than subtitles or anything like that. Fortunately, the dub was professionally done in Italy and is pretty decent as such things go (keep in mind that even the Italian version is “dubbed,” as was the general practice in Italy at the time). Weirdly, the English version I watched on Tubi carried neither of these titles, but rather had an opening title card reading The Mask of Satan. So I’m not sure what that was about.

This was Mario Bava’s first solo project after being brought in on several movies after their original directors had been fired or quit. As an aside, one of those movies he finished was 1958’s La Morte Viene dallo Spazio, which is considered to be the first Italian science fiction movie (the title directly translates as Death Comes from Space, though for its English release it was given the even better title of The Day the Sky Exploded). Anyway, he got the idea that he might be able to cash in on the success of the recent Hammer Films version of Dracula (starring Christopher Lee) by doing a horror movie with castles and stuff. After his success with La Maschera del Demonio, he went on to direct a series of great, mostly gothic, horror movies that remain highly influential even today. Though he has never been a household name in the U.S., one writer I saw commented that he felt Bava belonged on the “Mount Rushmore” of influential suspense directors, next to Alfred Hitchcock.

The actual story of the movie is set in rural “Moldavia” (vaguely equivalent to the present day country of Moldova), as is the Nikolai Gogol short story it takes as as its source material, though apparently the two bare only a passing resemblance to each other. A witch (played by British actress Barbara Steele) is sentenced to be executed via the titular mask by her own brother in the 1600s. She swears revenge and puts a curse on his descendants (and hers, by extension) before she dies. She is also meant to be burned at the stake but a sudden storm prevents this. Cut to the 1800s (contemporary to when Gogol wrote his story), where two doctors (the older played by Andrea Checci, the younger, Gorobec, by John Richardson) are passing through the same area in their carriage on their way to a “medical conference.” They go into the spooky chapel where the witch is interred while a wheel gets fixed (maybe they were hoping it had a bathroom) and some of the one doctor’s blood ends up dripping onto the witch for reasons.

Shortly thereafter, they meet a woman named Katia, who we know looks exactly like the witch and is also played by Barbara Steele), who tells them she lives with her father and brother in a nearby castle, as you do. Anyway, they doctors end up staying overnight, the witch comes back to life, Katia and the younger doctor fall for each other, and it turns out that Katia and her family are her descendants. Because Katia is actually the witch reincarnated, the witch has to drain her blood to fully live again (which I don’t think is what reincarnated usually means, but I’ll let it slide). In the end, the witch drains Katia of her youth and tries to convince Gorobec that she is Katia and and the old woman lying there is the witch, but Gorobec figures it out and the villagers finally burn the witch at the stake, which also miraculously restores Katia for reasons.

Bava seems to have an instinct for visuals. Much of the movie was story-boarded ahead of time, fairly unusual for the time, especially in this sort of genre piece. This leads to many of the more evocative shots, like the one of the bronze mask being fitted into place that is done from the perspective of the witch, such that the screen closes until it’s just two eye holes. The movie isn’t jump-scare-free, but Bava figures out other ways to keep suspense up that many directors ignore. One trick the movie pulls several times is to have someone or something visible to us behind a character, but the character themselves hasn’t actually seen it yet. At one moment, Gorobec runs down a hallway and opens a door, but as he opens it he looks over his shoulder. So we see his friend’s dead body hanging there from a noose, but there’s a long beat when he hasn’t realized yet, before he turns back around. The thrill of the movie is not just the (sometimes cheesy) things that happen in it, but at least as much in the presentation. 

Steele was trying to make a career as an actress in the UK when Bava saw her in a magazine photoshoot and decided he had to have her in his movie. Her double role made her career, and she went on to make something of a niche career in many of the other Italian horror movies to follow (famous enough to appear as herself in Fellini’s 8 ½). John Richardson, who plays her romantic interest, went on to play opposite more than one other 1960s icon, including Ursula Andress in She and Raquel Welch, fur bikini and all, in One Million Years B.C. Richardson passed away this January from COVID-19, at the age of 86.

A lot of very good suspense movies are about whether bad things are going to happen or not. For the most part, La Maschera del Demonio is about things happening, and the ideal reaction it wants to elicit from the audience is for them to put their hands over their eyes and then peek through their fingers. I’m not saying the second approach is better, but I sure as heck personally enjoy it more.

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